By Stan Friedman
CHICAGO, IL (June 8, 2011) – Although Willie Jemison had never pastored a congregation prior to arriving at Oakdale Covenant Church in 1970, he forever altered its future in ways no one could have imagined. The same is true for the Southside Chicago neighborhood in which the congregation ministered. And for the Evangelical Covenant Church.
“Dr. Jemison’s contribution to the community, church, and the Evangelical Covenant Church is immeasurable,” said President Gary Walter upon learning the news of Jemison’s death on Sunday. “He was a giant among us of faith, vision, brilliance, and persistence, traits common among genuinely transformational leaders.”
But it is impossible to talk about Jemison’s impact without doing the math.
When he began his ministry co-pastoring with Craig Anderson, the nearly all white congregation, unable to adjust to the neighborhood’s rapidly changing demographics, had plummeted from more than 200 members to just 25. In the previous decade, the south Chicago community had gone from 95 percent Swedish to 95 percent African American.
Less than 25 percent of African American youth were graduating high school. By the 1980s, fewer than half were leaving with diplomas.
Nationally, no one would have considered the Covenant multiethnic. Few African American, Asian, or Hispanics attended churches in the denomination.
By the time Jemison retired from Oakdale in 2000, the congregation had grown to more than 1,200 people serving their community and the world. The church had started more than 50 ministries, including Door of Hope Transitional Home, Oakdale Christian Academy and Child Care Center, and Academic Excellence Ministry.
Students who previously had little future graduated high school and went to college. The Covenant is now 25 percent multiethnic or intentionally multicultural.
“Through his faithful commitment to the whole gospel, he modeled holistic ministry in not only proclaiming but also in being the good news,” says Debbie Blue, a longtime friend and executive minister of the Department of Compassion, Mercy, and Justice. “His deep love for God and God’s people was visibly demonstrated as he embodied Luke 4:18-19: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ ”
Jemison invested in developing young leaders, many of whom now serve in leadership roles in the United States as well as internationally, Blue notes.
“His love and interest in youth have saved an entire generation,” says Darrell Griffin, Oakdale’s pastor since Jemison’s retirement. “The number of kids who went off to college because of Pastor Jemison literally is in the thousands.”
Under his guidance, the church started a school and programs that made sure students received the personal attention needed to obtain a diploma. Over the years, 99 percent of Oakdale students graduated high school.
In a November 2007 Covenant Companion article, Jemison recalled, “We knew it would take education to carry us over.” He added, “We discovered a long time ago that it took three things to be successful – a trained head, a dedicated heart, and hard work.”
All three were needed as he inspired the Covenant to not only honor its Swedish history, but to build upon it. Jemison was among the first African American ministers in the Covenant, and he helped to lead the way – sometimes calling forth, sometimes pushing – for the denomination to become more multiethnic.
“Willie was truly a pioneer in the Evangelical Covenant Church, thankfully impatient at times, and absolutely refusing to sit in the back row and be calm,” says retired Covenant minister James Anderson. “He was a unique leader in crushing stereotypes and challenging prejudices, all in the name of more faithfully serving Jesus and his church.”
Adds Blue, “The Covenant better reflects the kingdom of God because he was willing to pave a path through the rugged terrain for the rest of us.”
Jemison was ordained by the National Baptist Convention in 1965 and transferred his ordination to the Covenant in 1972. He served on the Board of Ordered Ministry and Executive Board as well as other positions. He was honored with the Irving Lambert Award for notable service in urban and ethnic ministry in 1986.
Funeral services for Jemison, 81, will be conducted at 11 a.m. Saturday at Oakdale Covenant Church. Visitation will be from 3 to 8 p.m. on Friday, and from 10 to 11 a.m. on Saturday at the church.